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Dresses to Di For

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If she were any other woman, she’d simply haul her clothes over to the Salvation Army or Goodwill when they didn’t suit her anymore. But if your major fashion accessory has been a diamond-encrusted tiara and your closet is the size of the average New York apartment, you can’t exactly pass on the old stuff to the cleaning lady.

Not at Kensington Palace.

Diana, princess of Wales and the world’s most famous coat hanger, is selling off 79 of her 90 fanciest frocks at an auction at Christie’s tonight to benefit six cancer and AIDS charities. It is an act befitting a woman who, though she will never be queen of England, is honing a new image as queen of hearts. She is also, presumably, trying to unload a lifestyle that ended with her divorce last year from heir to the British throne Prince Charles, and trying to make room in her palace cupboard to accommodate a shop-till-you-drop habit with new fashions.

The sale has had a huge media buildup, similar to the auctions of the duchess of Windsor’s jewels and Jacqueline Onassis’ estate, and is expected to bring in quite a haul. Diana’s hand-me-downs already have raised $1.5 million in catalog sales at $60 for softcover and $265 for hardcover.

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But how much individual gowns will go for is still unclear. Tonight’s bidding, with 1,100 in attendance at Christie’s Park Avenue salon and hundreds bidding by phone from around the world, is expected to start at $5,000 per dress, not a lot more than a haute couture dress might cost if it were new and hadn’t been fitted precisely for Diana’s ever-changing body--or, in the case of one silk chiffon number, did not have a tiny gravy stain from one of those royal feasts.

Probably, bargain hunters should look elsewhere. The market for these dresses ranges from museums to a daddy’s little girl with a fat allowance. (Imagine the conversation at a summer dance in Tulsa: “Ooooooo, Muffy, I just love your dress,” debutante No. 1 says to debutante No. 2, who has plunked down thousands for that emerald-green satin ball dress with the bustle. “Why, thank you,” says deb No. 2, adjusting a cap sleeve. “Where did you get it?” deb No. 1 inquires. “Oh,” deb No. 2 whispers, leaning over in a kind of royal curtsy, “it belonged to the princess.”)

Rumors persist that several drag queens might be bidding to wear a Di original at a slightly zanier ball. Told that the next person shimmying into one of her velvet bodices might be a transvestite, Diana is said to have responded, “I hope whoever buys them has as much fun in them as I did.”

Meredith Etherington-Smith, Christie’s director of the sale, ever so discreetly let on that there was considerable interest from Los Angeles. “I can’t say exactly who,” she said, winking, “but I would imagine it’s the Oscar audience.”

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While there are some stunning columns of silk and velvet, and off-the-shoulder numbers, there are several overwrought gowns (witness Lot No. 45--a one-sleeved ball dress in silk taffeta with a black background strewn with crimson roses) that are reminiscent of all the horrible bridesmaids dresses you had to buy in your 20s for college roommates’ weddings but were never again able to wear.

But it’s difficult to be too hard on a wardrobe--Etherington-Smith labels it the “world’s most glamorous working wardrobe"--that is probably a decent narrative of Diana’s 15-year journey from fairy-tale princess to savvy survivor of infidelity and Windsor Court intrigue.

Diana was 19 when she became engaged, 20 when she entered royalty and about 25 when the fairy tale began to break up. At 35, she is among the most recognizable faces in the world.

If nothing else, Diana has long been immensely better-dressed than her former mother-in-law and the Queen Mum, whose collective style one royal watcher has labeled “fussy itsy-bootsy.” Even with all the sequins and chiffon and those big “Dynasty” shoulders, compared to her female in-laws, Diana was a siren of simplicity. Still, royal women are a parody of chic: Everybody is already staring at them, and then they dress in overkill.

Vicki Woods, a British fashion writer who frequently contributes to Vogue, is sympathetic to the dilemma Diana faced when she was married and had to wear--exclusively--clothes by British designers.

“If you’re wearing an Indian prince’s ransom of emeralds and diamonds, you can’t be Calvin Klein-like and minimalist,” Woods pointed out. “You have to wear dresses as formal as the state occasion and the little gilt chairs you sit on and the flunkies surrounding you--including the palace staff in white, silk stockings and gold embroidered shoes.”

Diana also reached dressing maturity in a hard decade, the garish 1980s, and in a difficult time of any woman’s life, her 20s.

Elizabeth Emanuel, the British designer who created Diana’s wedding dress and has two romantic ball gowns in the sale, said the clothes reflect a style that went from frothy to glitzy to confident.

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“The clothes really show her life and how she has adapted to her role as a princess,” Emanuel said.

That was obvious even to the throngs of less professional eyes that surveyed Diana’s wardrobe last week as it hung on blank-faced mannequins in Christie’s showrooms. Hundreds of people, mostly tourists and Di-a-maniacs, ogled and assessed.

“Some dresses are so elegant; but what in the world was she thinking when she wore that?” said Peggy Anne Ellis, a 72-year-old retired actress from New York, pointing at Lot No. 72, a pleated tunic dinner dress of shrimp-pink silk.

A favorite of Wallace Muraoka, an advertising executive and collector who squeezed in a visit to Christie’s between appointments, was a formal dinner dress of cream silk with a flight of gold- and silver-sequined falcons on the bodice and train.

“I don’t know if these clothes are worth collecting, but this is the closest I’ll ever come to seeing the princess in a dress,” he said.

The dresses range in size from 6 to 12. While many women keep dresses of different sizes in their closets, Diana had quite an up-and-down trajectory, beginning with her wedding dress, which was reportedly taken in four times as she went through the typical yet exponentially worse bride traumas. Then she became pregnant. Later came the bulimic years when she was often radically thin, almost scrawny. Eventually, obsessive aerobics and workouts widened her into a jock--and reportedly a size 10 now.

Lucky for Diana, fat or thin, she has natural assets--height, long legs, narrow hips--that enable her to wear just about anything and still look spectacular.

And, Woods said, “She’s absolutely enchanting in the flesh. It’s peculiar in that she holds the eye mostly because of the facial expressions, not just structure. Her charm works equally on men and women because they’re knocked silent.”

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Woods compared Diana to a “very pretty child. She’s in no way an intellect, but talking to her makes you smile.”

For Vanity Fair’s July issue, Diana posed in a few of the most toned-down dresses designed, like the majority, by Catherine Walker--who has become the princess’ friend and who herself has breast cancer. It is instructive to compare how Diana looks in the Vanity Fair photos to how she looks in the catalog photos, taken when she originally wore the dresses. Now, the woman who spends her working time raising money for charity looks lusher, sexier and more relaxed. Her messy bangs, streaked blond hair and open smile bespeak perhaps a more content Diana looking for something completely new in her life.

In the past, Diana gave away clothes to her two older sisters and passed on outfits to her then-sister-in-law Fergie. The idea to try to turn what is essentially house cleaning into a sainted act actually came from her son Prince William. As the story goes, in November she was looking at a closet full of clothes she wouldn’t wear again when William, 15, suggested she give them to charity. In the catalog dedication she writes, “The inspiration for this wonderful sale comes from just one person . . . our son William.”

In referring to “our” son, it’s as if she’s trying to say, “Hey buster, don’t forget who I am.”

As if anyone ever could.


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